book reviews by Althea

Native Tongue – Suzette Haden Elgin **

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Native Tongue
Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Read for book club.

OK, first off: Suzette Haden Elgin is clearly a separatist, who believed that both women and men would be better off apart from each other. (Not that she seemed to care much about what might be better for men.)
I do not agree with this premise (not even a tiny bit) – but I’m not demeriting the book for holding a viewpoint I disagree with.

There are some interesting ideas brought up – but most of them are dropped, never to be picked up again. Elgin was a linguist, and as such, did have some interesting thoughts about language acquisition and communication.

However – it’s just not a very good book. The language is clunky and awkward, giving the book a feel more like it was published in the 50s than in the 80s. One of the members of my book club theorized that this was done on purpose (a theory bolstered by the fact that language was Elgin’s professional specialty!), but I have read one other book by her, published over a decade earlier, and that one was pretty similar in tone and style. (And it was even worse, as a work of literature.…) So I’m concluding that this was just her writing ‘voice.’

The premise of the book is that in a near future, when Earth has made contact with multitudes of alien races, communicating with those races in order to hammer out trade agreements has become of primary economic importance. It has been discovered that the only way to communicate with humanoid aliens is to have them send a representative who will interact with a human infant, until that infant picks up the alien language as its ‘native tongue.’ Only the babies of thirteen Linguist families, who all live in communal houses on Earth, are trained to this important work. Both the Linguists and the larger Earth culture have become extremely misogynistic: women have the status of slaves. However, the Linguist women have been secretly working on creating a “Womens’ Language” which they see as the tool of their liberation.

Well, Elgin may have been a linguist, but she certainly was not an economist or a sociologist. The whole situation, as described, feels very poorly thought out.

We have the Linguists, for one. They are the tiny group on which the entire human economy (not just Earth, but a plethora of colonies, which, we are told, are easy and cheap to travel to) depends on. However, they are portrayed as a hated group who have to pretend to be poor and live in ascetic, horrid situations, denying themselves even the smallest luxuries, in order to avoid inciting more hatred. This is just ridiculous. In reality, they’d be like oligarchs (as someone in my book club said) and would not care at all if they were loved or hated. They could have their own private planets, if they wanted.

Similarly – the linguist women are half of the Linguists. They are needed, desperately. Sure, they’ve been brought up to be slaves, but they’re already shown as being smart, savvy, and secretly rebellious. They could also go on strike. Hell, they could’ve applied for political asylum from another humanoid species – we’re explicitly told that other planets’ cultures have gender equality. It just doesn’t make sense with the author’s givens, why they’d just do as they were told.

For that matter though, it doesn’t make sense why the Linguists have their monopoly. We’re specifically told it’s not a genetic difference that gives them their abilities. Sure, people think talking to aliens is ‘icky’ and ‘taboo’ – but if the government is willing to experiment and sacrifice non-linguist babies to try to open up communication with non-humanoid aliens (so far, an impossibility), why on earth wouldn’t they do the same to break the Linguist monopoly on communication with humanoid aliens?

Speaking of the “impossibility” of communication with non-humanoid aliens, the most ridiculous part of the book is when (view spoiler) It was just like those old TV shows where something is entered into a computer and it goes “Does Not Compute… Does Not Compute…” and then blows up. This is just not how lack of comprehension works. (It’s not how computers work, either.)

For a book prominently featuring the idea of communication with aliens, it’s also quite disappointing that there is not one single alien character developed. We don’t know how a single alien thinks; what their cultures want, or how or why they are sending representatives to Earth to teach babies their languages. None do any real interacting with any of the characters. Big missed opportunity….

Last complaint… the ending. (view spoiler) It was completely anti-climactic and disappointing.

From this review, there’s a good possibility I should’ve read this instead:…

View all my reviews


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